The amaz­ing suc­cess of in­dige­nous artist Sally Ga­bori

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - INSIDE - PHIL BROWN

She has been com­pared to the revered US painter Mark Rothko, and that’s re­ally not such as stretch

The story of Queens­land in­dige­nous artist Sally Ga­bori is one of the most as­ton­ish­ing in the his­tory of Aus­tralian art.

Ga­bori, who died last year at the age of 91, didn’t start paint­ing un­til she was 81 and in the decade she was ac­tive as an artist she painted thou­sands of works. She was more than just a freak­ish phe­nom­e­non though. Her vi­brant and colour­ful work was em­braced by the public, she re­ceived crit­i­cal ac­claim and was quickly col­lected by ma­jor art mu­se­ums.

Queens­land Art Gallery will soon cel­e­brate her life and work with a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion, Mir­did­ingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Ga­bori: Dulka Warngiid – Land of All, which opens on May 21.

The cu­ra­tor of in­dige­nous art at the gallery, Bruce McLean, says the show will be a win­dow to Ga­bori’s world – Morn­ing­ton and Bentinck is­lands in the Gulf Of Car­pen­taria, places for­eign to most of us.

“It’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent world up there,” McLean says. “It’s a unique place and a coun­try that Ga­bori in­fused into all her works. Her love of coun­try and her mem­o­ries all flow though her paint­ings which also con­vey emo­tion and mood.”

And they do that with a palette that daz­zles, en­tices and de­lights an ador­ing public. Mclean points out that the beauty of Ga­bori’s paint­ings is that they work on a num­ber of lev­els.

For those who want to go deeper they are point­ers to a rich cul­tural her­itage that is more com­plex than one might imag­ine. On the other hand her paint­ings can be en­joyed for their im­me­di­ate ap­peal as ab­stract art. She has been com­pared to the revered US painter Mark Rothko, and that’s re­ally not such a stretch.

The amaz­ing thing is that she lived her life in a re­mote part of Aus­tralia far from the sa­lons of the art world.

Ga­bori, who died in Fe­bru­ary 2015, was born at Bentinck Is­land about 1924 (the ex­act date of her birth is un­clear). Her tribal name, Mir­did­ingkathi Juwarnda means “dol­phin born at Mir­did­ingki” and she grew up at a time when her peo­ple, the Ka­iadilt, still lived a tra­di­tional life, with­out many Euro­pean in­flu­ences.

Mis­sion­ar­ies moved her peo­ple to Morn­ing­ton Is­land when she was 20 but she al­ways re­tained a love of her home is­land, a place which re­mained the well­spring for her artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion.

She con­tin­ued to speak her lan­guage and sing the songs that con­nected her to her home and of­ten used to sing while paint­ing or upon com­ple­tion of a work.

Her art ca­reer be­gan in 2005 when she at­tended a paint­ing workshop at the art cen­tre on Morn­ing­ton Is­land, held by Simon Turner of Bris­bane’s Wool­loongabba Art Gallery.

Ini­tially, the older women of the com­mu­nity weren’t ex­pected to par­tic­i­pate but Turner, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties, knew that el­ders – such as the great Emily Kame Kng­war­r­eye – of­ten had much to con­trib­ute.

Ga­bori’s first work showed prom­ise and it soon be­came ap­par­ent that a ma­jor new tal­ent had been un­earthed.

When Turner showed her work at Wool­loongabba Art Gallery the art world was ex­cited.

Phi­lan­thropist and avid col­lec­tor Pat Cor­ri­gan was among those who re­alised Ga­bori’s tal­ent.

Works from Cor­ri­gan’s ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of Ga­bori’s art (he owns more than 100 of her paint­ings) are in­cluded in the Queens­land Art Gallery ex­hi­bi­tion along with oth­ers from other in­sti­tu­tions and private col­lec­tions.

“It was the vi­brant colours that at­tracted me,” Cor­ri­gan says. “I was blown away by her orig­i­nal­ity. It might sound corny but I think she’s the most amaz­ing artist of our time any­where in the world. To pick up a brush in her 80s and paint thou­sands of works ... it’s an amaz­ing story.”

Cor­ri­gan com­mis­sioned a book on the artist, Ga­bori – The Cor­ri­gan Col­lec­tion of

Paint­ings by Sally Ga­bori, pub­lished last year. It’s a good place to start to learn more about her and is full of photos of her coun­try and fam­ily as well as paint­ings.

Ga­bori was chuffed with her suc­cess, says McLean: “She was proud of what she had done. And she knew this ex­hi­bi­tion was in the works. It’s just a shame she didn’t live to see it.”

Queens­land Art Gallery and Gallery of Mod­ern Art was, ap­pro­pri­ately, the first ma­jor art mu­seum to dis­cover her. QAGOMA di­rec­tor Chris Saines ex­plains that this was 10 years ago at the Xs­trata Coal Emerg­ing In­dige­nous Art Awards.

“Few artists have made such an im­pact from such a short ca­reer,” says Saines, who high­lights ma­jor achieve­ments in­clud­ing a ma­jor site-spe­cific work in the Supreme Court in Bris­bane and a sweep­ing mu­ral for the re­de­vel­oped in­ter­na­tional ter­mi­nal at Bris­bane Air­port fea­tur­ing re­pro­duc­tions of Ga­bori paint­ings from ceil­ing to floor along a 750m ar­rivals con­course.

“A more po­tent and po­etic wel­come to Queens­land could hardly be imag­ined,” Saines says.

The Queens­land Art Gallery ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes large-scale col­lab­o­ra­tive works and works on pa­per cre­ated to­wards the end of Ga­bori’s life.

McLean says many of her paint­ings ap­pear ab­stract but “re­tain an essence of Ka­iadilt Coun­try and at their heart they res­onate with univer­sal themes of loss, long­ing and love”.

Mir­did­ingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Ga­bori: Dulka Warngiid – Land of All, May 21-Au­gust 28, Queens­land Art Gallery,

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